Friday 22 February 2019

Will proposals on policing help to solve more crime?

Rank-and-file gardai welcome back-to-basics findings as complaints are being heard for a change, writes Maeve Sheehan

NEW DIRECTION: New Garda Commisioner Drew Harris pictured at a Garda passing out ceremony in Templemore, Co Tipperary, earlier this month. Photo: Don Moloney
NEW DIRECTION: New Garda Commisioner Drew Harris pictured at a Garda passing out ceremony in Templemore, Co Tipperary, earlier this month. Photo: Don Moloney
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland published last week took rank-and-file members by surprise. Mostly because of how much it appeared to have come down on their side. It charted how they long felt undervalued and neglected, complained of nepotism and favouritism, how they were often pulled away from frontline policing to other duties, and condemned the hated work roster - the bane of many a garda's life - as not fit for purpose.

"They actually listened to us," said one astonished source who represents the rank and file.

Will the commission's recommendations help solve more crime?

According to gardai both at officer level and rank and file, they will. In theory. If all the recommendations were implemented, the burden of having to do non-police work would be lifted, they would be free to do their core job and wouldn't have to look for a transfer to a special unit to get themselves considered for a promotion, as they say is predominantly the case now.

As one garda described it, this is "back-to-basics", "bottom-up" policing.

The report proposes a new model of district policing that puts community - and the Garda's role in it - front and centre. In the commission's world, every district garda is a community garda - not just the 10pc in each district who are actually given the title "community garda".

"We regard district policing as the backbone of police work and the police mission," the report said, and "all police service personnel" should be considered community police.

District police should refer on serious cases - such as rape, murders, organised crime - to specialist units, it says. We should view gardai like community-based GPs who now and again refer their patients on to specialist consultants.

This is the future of policing, it says.

But the Department of Justice and Garda management have been rolling out an entirely different policing policy which promotes a more centralised form of policing.

This policy emerged from the Garda inspectorate report in 2015 which highlighted the inefficiency and duplication involved in district superintendents across the country doing the same admin.

Instead gardai are trialling a "divisional policing model" which would transfer administrative power to divisional hubs. Each hub would have dedicated garda managers in charge of road traffic, or human resources, or finances for many or all of the districts within that division.

It is a key plank in the Government's Five Year Reform and High Level Workforce Plan and is being rolled out on a pilot basis in Cork, Galway, Mayo and Kevin Street in Dublin.

Could it become a casualty of the Commission on the Future of Policing? "This would appear to be the opposite of what the Commission on the Future of Policing is proposing," said one senior garda last week.

But Garda management believe that the two models could complement each other. The report says that core, front-line districts should be supported by specialist and administrative services from the divisional level.

In any case, according to sources in the Phoenix Park, Garda management were more surprised by the proposal to abolish the Policing Authority and Garda Inspectorate and merge their functions into a single new oversight body.

The report recommends policing from the ground up. That includes whittling Garda functions back to the core one of policing. Implementing even a fraction of the report's recommendations would impact right across the public sector. With Garda duties restored to the core function of policing, serving summonses would become a matter for the courts, transferring prisoners for the prison service and prosecutions in the District Court a matter for solicitors. Which would leave the State with a hefty legal bill as well. "Getting superintendents and inspectors to do prosecutions was a cheap way of doing it," said one senior garda.

"And this all comes down to money."

Ah, money. One senior officer said that the decision of the Commission on the Future of Policing not to include costings for its policing policy means that it's hard to take its findings seriously. "The sky's the limit when you're not working off a budget," said one source.

The target date of 2022 for the report's implementation is regarded by some as a stretch - a date chosen for its "symbolic importance" as it marks the centenary of the founding of the Irish police service. Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Justice, has promised to set up an implementation office as recommended by the report to oversee the changes, but he has warned that the process will be slow and challenging.

The commission began working on a reform programme in the first place because of Garda scandals. Some of them, such as the fake breath test phenomenon, implicated the rank and file. But "leadership" was identified by the commission's report as one of the "weaknesses" in Garda culture - along with transparency and "standing up and reporting wrongdoing". The commission was "struck" by the "strong sense of duty" of those they met.

The report singles out the Greentown Study as an example of how gardai can collaborate with academics to inform crime policy. The study at the University of Limerick found that up to 1,000 children across the country were enticed and compelled into criminal activity by crime gangs. It was based on a survey of Garda juvenile liaison officers, who work with those children on programmes aimed at diverting them away from crime.

Professor Sean Redmond led the study and 90pc of juvenile liaison gardai responded, an unusually high figure.

"I think there is a genuine sense of mission with them," he said. "It's really powerful data. You don't get that sort of response to any kind of social surveys."

And that's what reformers hope to capitalise on.

Sunday Independent

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